Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Conflicts with the Indians


In the last chapter we have alluded to the friendly meeting, in the valley of San Joaquin, of the American trappers with a party from Canada, sent out by the Hudson's Bay Company. It is a remarkable fact, but one which all will admit, that the Hudson's Bay Company maintained far more friendly relations with the Indians than the Americans secured. In fact, they seldom had any difficulty with them whatever. The following reasons seem quite satisfactorily to explain this difference. It is said:

"The American trapper was not like the Hudson's Bay employees, bred to the business. Oftener than any other way he was some wild youth who, after some misdemeanor in the society of his native place, sought safety from reproach or punishment in the wilderness. Or he was some disappointed man, who with feelings embittered towards his fellows, preferred the seclusion of the forest and mountain. Many were of a class disreputable everywhere, who gladly embraced a life not subject to social laws. A few were brave, independent and hardy spirits, who delighted in the hardships and wild adventures their calling made necessary. All these men, the best with the worst, were subject to no will but their own. And all experience goes to prove that a life of perfect liberty is apt to degenerate into a life of license.

"Even their own lives, and those of their companions, when it depended upon their own prudence, were but lightly considered. The constant presence of danger made them reckless. It is easy to conceive how, under these circumstances, the natives and the foreigners grew to hate each other, in the Indian country, especially after the Americans came to the determination to 'shoot an Indian at sight.'

"On the other hand, the employees of the Hudson's Bay Company were many of them half-breeds, or full-blooded Indians of the Iroquois nation, towards whom nearly all the tribes were kindly disposed. Even the Frenchmen, who trapped for this Company, were well liked by the Indians on account of their suavity of manner, and the ease with which they adapted themselves to savage life. They were trained to the life of a trapper, were subject to the will of the Company, and were generally just and equitable in their dealing with the Indians. Most of them also had native wives, and half-breed children, and were regarded as relatives. There was a wide difference."

It was the month of September when Mr. Young and his party set out on their return. The homeward route was essentially the same which they had already traversed. They made a brief visit at the Mission of San Fernando, and then pressed on to the flourishing Mission village of Los Angelos. This City of the Angels, as it was called, from the salubrity of the climate and the beauty of the scenery, was on a small river about four hundred and fifty miles southeast from the present site of San Francisco.

Here Mr. Carson was introduced to a scene of refined, and polished life, such as he had never witnessed before. He was informed that a Spanish gentleman of wealth was residing, at the distance of a few miles, on one of the most highly cultivated farms in the country. Young Carson, who never allowed any opportunity of extending his knowledge to escape him, dressed himself carefully in his best apparel, mounted a fine horse, well caparisoned, and set out to pay the Spaniard a visit.

He reached the ranche, as the farm was called, dismounted at a wicket gate, and having fastened his horse, walked up several rods, over a gravelled-walk, and beneath an avenue of trees, with occasional clumps of shrubs and flowers, until he reached the residence. It consisted of a spacious one story edifice, built of sun-baked bricks, called adobe. The dwelling was a hundred feet long, and the roof was rendered impenetrable to rain, being covered with a thick coating of asphaltum, mingled with sand. There was a spring of this valuable pitchy substance near the village; and the roofs of all the houses in Los Angelos were similarly covered.

A huge brass knocker was attached to the door. In response to its summons, an Indian girl made her appearance, and ushered him into an elegantly furnished parlor. There were several guitars lying about, with other indications that there were ladies in the household. Soon the gentlemanly owner of the farm appeared, in morning gown and slippers. He was a fine looking man, of dignified address, and courteously he saluted the stranger.

There was a native air of refinement about Kit Carson, with his highly intellectual features, and his modest, self-possessed bearing, which seemed always to win, at sight, interest and confidence. Carson introduced himself as an American, though he spoke in the Spanish language. His host, evidently much pleased with his guest, replied in English, saying:

"I address you in your native tongue, which I presume is agreeable to you, though you speak very good Spanish."

The parties were immediately on the most friendly terms. Carson sought information which the Spanish gentleman was able and happy to give. It was an early hour in the morning. Carson was invited to remain to breakfast, and was soon conducted to the breakfast-room, where he was introduced to the wife of his host, and several sons and daughters.

There was no restraint in conversation, as both parties could speak, with equal apparent facility, the Spanish and the English. There was a young gentleman from Massachusetts, a graduate from a New England college, who was private tutor in the family. After breakfast the stranger was conducted around the farm, and to the vineyard.

"I have more grapes," said the host, "than I know what to do with. Last year I made more butts of wine than I could dispose of, and dried five thousand pounds of raisins. I have travelled through Europe, and I think that neither the valley of the Rhine nor the Tagus can produce such grapes as ours. I think that the Los Angelos grape is indeed food for angels. They are equal to the grapes of Eschol. You remember the heavy clusters that were found there, so that two men carried one on a pole resting upon their shoulders. See that vine now. It is six inches in diameter. And yet it needs a prop to sustain the weight of the two clusters of grapes which it bears."

"I have more oranges," he said, "than I can either use or give away. This is the finest country the sun shines upon. We can live luxuriously upon just what will grow on our own farms. But we cannot get rich. Our cattle will only bring the value of the hides. Our horses are of little worth, for there are plenty running wild, which a good huntsman can take with a lasso. I think that we shall have the Americans with us before many years, and, for my part, I hope we shall. The idea of the Californians generally, as well as other Mexicans, that the Americans are too shrewd for them, is true enough. But certainly there is plenty of room for a large population, and I should prefer that the race that has most enterprise should come and cultivate the country with us."

Thus the conversation continued for two hours. Young Carson modestly suggested that it would be better if the Spaniards were less cruel in breaking in their horses.

"Your horses," said he, "would make excellent buffalo hunters with proper training. I have some horses at camp, that I intend shall see buffalo. But why do you not deal gently with them when they are first caught? You might thus preserve all the spirit they have in the herd. Pardon me, but I think that in taming your horses you break their spirits."

"I sometimes think so too," the Spanish gentleman replied. "We mount one just caught from the drove, and ride him until he becomes gentle from exhaustion. Our custom is brought from Spain. It answers well enough with us, where our horses go in droves; and when one is used up, we turn him out and take up another."

When young Carson took his leave, the Spaniard, with true Castilian courtesy, pressed his hand, thanked him for his visit, and promised to return it at the camp. It was thus instinctively that Kit Carson, naturally a gentleman, took his position among gentlemen.

In the meantime most of the rude trappers, seeming to be almost of a different nature from Kit Carson, were indulging in a drunken carouse at Los Angelos. They got into a brawl with the Mexicans. Knives were drawn, wounds inflicted, and one Mexican was killed.

It became necessary to get these men away as soon as possible. Carson was sent forward a day's march, with all who could be collected. The next day Mr. Young followed, having with much difficulty gathered the remainder of the band. Soon the party was reunited, and the men were recovered from their shameful debauch. Then for nine days they vigorously continued their march homeward, when they again reached the banks of the Colorado river, not far from the spot where they had crossed it before.

Here they encamped for a few days, while most of the men ranged the stream for many miles up and down, still very successfully setting their traps. Carson, with half a dozen men, was left to guard the camp. It was a responsible position. Nearly all the horses were there, and all the treasures of furs which they had gathered in their long and laborious excursion. As the animals were turned out to graze, the packs, which were taken from them, were arranged in a circular form so as to enclose quite a space, like a fortress. These bundles of furs not even a bullet could penetrate. Thus Kit Carson reared for himself and men a rampart, as General Jackson protected his troops with cotton bags at New Orleans.

Scarcely was this work completed, when a band of five hundred Indians was seen approaching. As usual, they stopped at a short distance from the fortified camp, and a few of the warriors, laying aside their arms and expressing by words and gestures the utmost friendliness, came forward and were admitted into the camp. They were followed by others. Soon there were enough stalwart savages there easily to overpower, in a hand-to-hand fight, the feeble garrison of but six men. Carson's suspicions were excited, and watching their movements with an eagle eye, he soon discovered that they all had concealed weapons.

Without the slightest apparent alarm he quietly summoned his men, with their rifles, into one corner of the enclosure. Then in his usual soft voice he directed each man to take deliberate aim at some one of the prominent chiefs. He himself presented the muzzle of his rifle within a few yards of the head of the leader of the now astonished and affrighted party. This was all the work of a moment. Then calmly he said to the leader, "leave this fort instantly or you are dead men." A moment of hesitation on their part, a word of parleying would have been followed by the simultaneous discharge of the rifles, and six of the warriors at least, would have been numbered with the dead. In a moment the fort was cleared, and the savages did not stop until they had got beyond the reach of rifle bullets.

One of these Indians could speak Spanish. Thus Kit Carson again found the inestimable advantage of his winter's studies in the cabin of Kin Cade. The Indians, five hundred in number, might easily, at the expense of the loss of a few lives, have overpowered the white men, and seized all their animals and their goods. But Carson well knew their habits, and that they would never hazard a contest where they must with certainty expect a number of their own warriors to be slain. Friendly relations were opened with the Indians, only two or three being admitted to the fort at a time. The animals were tethered in the rich herbage within the protection of their rifles and were carefully watched, night and day.

In a few days the men who had left the camp on a trapping expedition, returned. The whole united company then followed down the south bank of the Colorado, setting their traps every night, until they reached its tide waters. From that point they struck over east to the river Gila, and trapped up the western banks of that river until they reached the mouth of the San Pedro, a distance of more than two hundred miles.

Their animals now were very heavily laden with furs, and they were in great need of more beasts of burden. The following is the account which is given of the manner in which they obtained a supply. It certainly looks very suspicious. It is not improbable that the Indians, had they any historians, would give a very different version of the story.

"Near the mouth of the San Pedro river they discovered a large herd of horses and mules. On a closer examination they found that they were in possession of a band of Indians, who had formerly given them some of their gratuitous hostilities. Not having forgotten their former troubles with these people, they determined to pay them off in their own coin by depriving them of the herd. A short search sufficed to discover the Indian camp. Without waiting an instant, they put their horses to their speed, and charged in among the huts. The Indians were so completely taken by surprise, that they became panic-struck, and fled in every direction. They however rallied somewhat and a running fight commenced, which lasted some time, but which did not change matters in favor of the Indians. The entire herd fell into the possession of the trappers.

"On the same evening, after the men had wrapped themselves up in their blankets, and laid down for sleep, and while enjoying their slumbers, a noise reached their ears which sounded very much like distant thunder. But a close application of the sense of hearing showed plainly that an enemy was near at hand. Springing up, with rifle in hand, for generally in the mountains a man's gun rests in the same blanket with himself, on all sleeping occasions, they sallied forth to reconnoitre, and discovered a few warriors driving along a band of at least two hundred horses. The trappers comprehended instantly that the warriors had been to the Mexican settlement in Sonora, on a thieving expedition, and that the horses had changed hands, with only one party to the bargain. The opportunity to instill a lesson on the savage marauders was too good to be lost.

"They saluted the thieves with a volley from their rifles, which, with the bullets whizzing about their heads and bodies, so astonished them that they seemed almost immediately to forget their stolen property, and to think only of a precipitous flight. In a few moments the whites found themselves masters of the field and also of the property. To return, the animals to their owners was an impossibility. Mr. Young, therefore, selected as many of the best horses as he needed for himself and men, and, game being very scarce, killed two, and dried most of the meat for future use, turning the remainder loose."

Such were the morals of the wilderness. Mr. Young resolved himself into a court, of which he was legislator, judge, jury and executioner. The property of others he could confiscate at pleasure, for his own use. The Indians probably retaliated upon the first band of white men which came within their power. And this retaliation would be deemed an act of wanton savage barbarism demanding the extinction of a tribe.

Continuing their march up the Gila river, trapping all the way, from its head waters they struck across the country to Santa Fe. Here they found a ready market for their furs, at twelve dollars a pound. Their mules were laden down with two thousand pounds. Thus the pecuniary results of the trip amounted to the handsome sum of twenty four thousand dollars. The trappers, flush with money, returned to Taos. The vagabonds of the party soon squandered their earnings in rioting, and were then eager to set out on another excursion. It was now April, 1830.

Young Carson was at this time a very handsome young man of twenty-one years. He had obtained a high reputation, and his pockets were full of money, with which he scarcely knew what to do. It is said that, for a time, he was led astray by the convivial temptations with which he was surrounded. To what length he went we cannot ascertain. There is no available information upon this point. Perhaps the whole story is but one of those slanders to which all men are exposed. One of his annalists writes:

"Young Kit, at this period of his life, imitated the example set by his elders, for he wished to be considered by them as an equal and a friend. He however passed through this terrible ordeal, which most frequently ruins its votary, and eventually came out brighter, clearer and more noble for the conscience polish which he received. He contracted no bad habits, but learned the usefulness and happiness of resisting temptation; and became so well schooled that he was able, by the caution and advice of wisdom founded on experience, to prevent many a promising and skilful hand from grasping ruin in the same vortex."

In the fall of this year Kit joined another trapping expedition. Its destination was to the innumerable streams and valleys among the Rocky mountains. Mr. Fitzpatrick, a man of good reputation and a veteran trapper, had charge of the party. Crossing a pass of the Rocky mountains, they pursued their route in a direction nearly north, a distance of about three hundred miles, till they reached the head waters of the Platte river. They were now on the eastern side of those gigantic ranges which form the central portion of the North American Continent.

Here, in the midst of the mountains, the winter was inclement, with piercing blasts and deep snows. Still the trappers, warmly clad, vigorously pursued both hunting and trapping, availing themselves of every pleasant day. In inclement weather they gathered joyously around their ample camp-fires, finding ever enough to do in cooking, dressing their skins, repairing garments, making moccasins, and in keeping their guns and knives in order. Some of these valleys were found sheltered and sunny. Even in mid-winter there were days of genial warmth. They occasionally changed their camp and trapped along the banks of the Green, the Bear and the Salmon rivers.

During the winter one sad incident occurred. Four of the trappers who were out in pursuit of game, were surrounded and overpowered by a numerous party of Blackfeet Indians, and all were killed. There were buffaloes in abundance in that region, and these animals found ample forage, as they had the range of hundreds of miles, and instinct guided them to sheltered and verdant glens. But in some of the narrow, wind-swept valleys the animals of the trappers suffered from exposure and want of food. They were kept alive by cutting down cottonwood trees and gathering the bark and branches for fodder. But the trappers themselves, having abundance of game, fared sumptuously.

The beaver is so intelligent that he is one of the most difficult animals in the world to entrap. Marvellous stories are told by the hunters of his sagacity. Many of the Indians believe that the beavers have human intelligence. They say that the only difference between the beaver and the Indian, is that the latter has been endowed by the Great Spirit with capabilities to catch the former.

Among these bleak, barren, gigantic ridges there are many lovely valleys to be found, scores of miles in length and width. Here are found two extensive natural parks, of extraordinary beauty. Apparently no landscape gardener could have laid them out more tastefully. There are wide-spread lawns, sometimes level as a floor, sometimes gently undulating, smooth, green and at times decorated with an almost inconceivable brilliance of flowers. Here and there groves are sprinkled, entirely free from underbrush. There are running streams and crystal lakelets. Birds of brilliant plumage sport upon the waters. Buffaloes, often in immense numbers, crop the luxuriant herbage. Deer, elks and antelopes bound over these fields, reminding one of his childish visions of Paradise. In the streams otter and beaver find favorite haunts.

During the winter, as business was a little dull, Kit Carson and four of his companions set off on a private hunting expedition. They were gone about six weeks. Soon after their return, in the latter part of January, a party of Crow Indians, one very dark night, succeeded in stealthily approaching the camp and in driving off nine of the animals which were grazing at a short distance. It was not until morning that the loss was discovered.

As usual Kit Carson was sent, at the head of twelve men, in pursuit of the thieves. They selected their best horses, for it was certain that the Indians would make no delay in their flight. It was found quite difficult to follow their trail, for, during the night, a herd of several thousand buffaloes had crossed and recrossed it, quite trampling it out of sight. Still the sagacity of Carson triumphed, and after being baffled for a short time, he again with certainty struck the trail.

For forty miles the pursuit was continued with much vigor. The horses then began to give out. Night was approaching. Carson thought it necessary to go into camp till morning, that the horses might be refreshed and recruited. There was a grove near by. Just as they were entering it for their sheltered encampment, Kit Carson saw the smoke of Indian fires at no great distance in advance of him. He had no doubt that the smoke came from the encampment of the party he was pursuing.

The Indians had fled from the north. Of course it would be from the north that they would look for the approach of their pursuers. The southern borders of their camp would consequently be less carefully guarded. The trappers remained quietly in their hiding-place until midnight. They then took a wide circuit, so as to approach the Indians from the south. The savages seemed to have lost all fear of pursuit, for the gleam of their triumphal fires shone far and wide, and the shouts of their barbaric revelry resounded over the prairie.

Very cautiously Carson and his men approached, availing themselves of every opportunity of concealment, creeping for a long distance upon their hands and knees. Having arrived within half gunshot they gazed upon a very singular spectacle, and one which would have been very alarming to any men but those accustomed to the perils of the wilderness.

A large number of Indian warriors, painted, plumed and decorated in the highest style of savage taste, were celebrating what they deemed a victory over the white men. Their camp was in a beautiful grove, on what would be called an undulating prairie. There was some broken ground which facilitated the approach of the trappers. The nine horses they had stolen were tethered in some rich grass, at a short distance from the encampment. The Indians had erected two large huts, or wigwams, which, in their caution, they had constructed partially as forts into which they could retreat and protect themselves should they be attacked.

The large fires were burning hotly. At these fires they had roasted two horses, and had feasted to satiety. They were now dancing franticly around these fires, brandishing their weapons, shouting their rude songs of defiance and exultation, interspersed with occasional bursts of the shrill and piercing war-whoop. The savages outnumbered the trappers many to one. They were also armed with rifles and had learned how to use them skillfully. Thus, in view of a battle, the odds seemed fearfully against the trappers.

It was a dark night in January, and a piercing winter wind swept the prairie. Even savage muscles will get weary in the frenzied dance, and the continuously repeated war-whoop will exhaust the most stentorian lungs. Carson ordered his men to remain perfectly quiet in their concealment. As they had but a scanty allowance of clothing, they suffered much from the intense cold. Soon after midnight the savages threw themselves down around the fires and most of them were soon soundly asleep.

Kit Carson then, with five of his companions, cautiously crept towards the horses, drew out the picket-pins and led them a short distance to a place of concealment nearer their own camp. Several of the party were then in favor of returning, with their recovered property, as rapidly as possible. They would have several hours advantage of the savages, and they thought it not advisable to provoke a conflict with foes outnumbering them, and who were also armed with rifles.

But Mr. Carson said, "our horses are exhausted. We cannot travel fast. We shall certainly be pursued. The Indians can judge from our trail how few we are in numbers. They are perfectly acquainted with the country. They can select their point of attack. With their large numbers they can surround us. First they will shoot our horses. Then we shall be on foot and at their mercy. We now can take them by surprise. Our only safety consists in so weakening them, and appalling them by the vehemence of our attack, that they will have no heart to renew the conflict."

Western River


We do not profess to give Mr. Carson's precise words. These were his views. They were so manifestly correct that all, at once, fell in with them. The united party then again advanced, with rifles cocked and primed, towards the Indian camp. The trappers were in the shade. The recumbent forms of the sleeping Indians were revealed by the smouldering fires. When they were within a few yards of the foe, an Indian dog gave the alarm. Instantly every savage sprang to his feet, presenting a perfect target to these marksmen who never missed their aim. There was almost an instantaneous discharge of rifles and thirteen Indian warriors fell weltering in their blood.

The rest, thus suddenly awoke from sound sleep, witnessing the sudden carnage, and with no foe visible, fled precipitately to their forts. But the trappers instantly reloaded their pieces and, secure from harm, in the darkness, and behind the trees, struck with the bullet every exposed Indian, and five more fell. This was an awful loss to the Indians. Still they greatly outnumbered the whites. But they were caught in a trap. They had neither food nor water in their forts. Not an Indian could creep from them without encountering certain death.

Upon the dawn of day the Indians were able to ascertain that their foes were but few in number. As the only possible resort, which could save them from destruction, they decided to make a simultaneous rush, from the forts into the grove, and to take their stand also behind the protection of the trees. This would give them, with their superior numbers, the advantage over the trappers. They were good marksmen with the rifle, and were accustomed to that style of fighting. Mr. Carson was prepared for this movement. They made the rush, and they met their doom. Thirteen more warriors were struck down, either killed or severely wounded.

The Indians had now lost thirty-one warriors. Discouraged and appalled they retreated. The way was now clear for the return of Kit Carson. The savages made no attempts to obstruct their path. With all the horses which had been stolen, and without a man injured, this Napoleon of the wilderness re-entered the camp to be greeted by the cheers of his comrades.